Saturday, January 29, 2011

Back in the Air!

I did a bi-annual review today at Oklahoma Aviation. I haven't been in the air in a while, so I was a little nervous showing up.

A biannual review is something that all pilots have to do to stay current, or legally be able to fly an airplane. It is done once ever two years and consists of one hour of ground time, and one hour in the air. It is done with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). It is not a test, it is a review, there is no grade, no official evaluation that is sent in to the FAA. All the FAA requires it that a CFI spent the time with the pilot, then endorse his log book saying that the pilot has satisfactorily completed the review. That's it. I haven't flown since my last biannual review thus the afore mentioned nerves.

What added to my nerves was that I have not landed from a controlled airport since June 19, 1992. That was just a touch and go (land, then immediately take off again). I have never landed to a complete stop at a controlled airport, and I have never, in my entire life, taxied at an airport that used ground control. I was very nervous about that. I have talked to Air Traffic Control (ATC) before, but never really landed at the towered airports.
Being from the Midwest, this is really not tough to accomplish. The vast number of airports have no tower, so VFR pilots simply land and take off. We communicate over the open frequency and do our best not to step on one another. The tower, for me, was a physical manifestation of the FAA. The cops in the air, just waiting for me to screw up so that they could write me up with a violation. Spooky.

Anyway I walked in to Oklahoma Aviation about 9am and met Marcus, the chief flight instructor and my date for the day. We started the review like they all start out, him asking me the standard questions. What are the airspaces, what are the cloud clearances, what do you do if your wings start to ice up, what are the emergency procedures if you engine catches on fire in mid air(seriously). I blow past all of these, for the most part I have them memorized and I am good to go. We pull out the map and he asked the standard questions about that. After a bit he felt that I was good to go from a ground perspective. Really there isn't much to the ground part, and the instructors really don't care much about it. They care if you are safe in the airplane. So I go out and preflight the aircraft, a 2006 Cessna 172SP. It has 180 horse, and a G1000 glass cockpit. I was really excited about this. I have been reading about glass cockpits for nearly 10 years now, but I have never had the chance to fly in one. The aircraft rental prices around here are so high that I could have rented a steam (old school instruments) airplane for $160, or the glass for $170. I decided to pay the extra $10 and fly an airplane, for the first time in my life, that was from a model year after I was born.

Cessna N9017A a 2006 172 My airplane for the day.

I did my preflight and found some differences about the airplanes right away. All airplanes have little places where the pilot, during the preflight, takes small samples of fuel to determine if the fuel has water or any other types of impurities. Look... If you have water in your gas tank in a car, at worst you are stranded on the side of the road. In the airplane you are dead, so we like to know if there is water in the tanks before we slip the surly bounds of earth.
The new 172 has 5 places to check the fuel for each wing tank. The old ones only had one per wing. Other than that, the air frame was the same, my walk around was uneventful. Time to kick the tires and light the fires!!

We hopped in and got ready to start the engine. I noticed right away that the engine start check list was different. Cessna got rid of the carburetors. The airplane is fuel injected. That is better than good it is great! I was looking around for the Carburetor Heat (some times ice can form in the venturi tube, the carburetor heat warms the sides of the tube so that ice does not form, and you don't die) no more! That is very cool, one less thing to worry about when you are taking off and landing.
Another new item is that there was an axillary fuel pump. But Cessnas are high wing airplanes, they use gravity to get their gas, not a pump. Apparently it is a new safety thing Cessna starting doing. I don't know when they started... Anyway there was a procedure there to test it before we took off.

The engine cranked to life and the real fun started. The Garmin 1000 Glass Cockpit. It was so awesome... Too awesome.... Right away I realized that nothing was where I expected it, nothing looked familiar, and I spent a lot of time just looking for the basic stuff... Like the Tachometer... Not good.

Lots of pretty lights...(click for a huge picture)

I right away I was much more distracted by the glass panel than I thought I would be. I started to think that maybe this was a bad idea. But I don't like not liking something simply because it is new and different. I wanted to step my flying in to the future and this certainly was the future.

Now the moment of truth. I told the instructor before we started about my lack of experience with the tower. He said that he would handle the radios for now, and I was just to listen and I would handle them on the way back. He said that the layout of Wiley Post airport was fairly simple so ground control was not that big of a deal.

View Larger Map
Wiley Post Airport

The biggest difference between tower controlled and non towered airports is the freedom. With no tower, pilots just jump in, crank over and head for the sky. With towered airports, they make sure you listen to the latest weather, and all of the airport information before you can get any clearances. This is called ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service) it changes every so often and it is designated a letter. So when you are ready to start to taxi to the runway, or contacting the tower to land, you need to tell them that you have information (letter designation here). So, since we were taking off, we called ground control and said
"Cessna 9701A ready to taxi. Information Charlie"
We were then given a transponder number and told to identify ourselves. To identify you press a button and that sends a message to the radar that makes the airplane "bloom" it tells them who you are.

We were given clearance to head to the runway and complete our run up engine checks, then to contact the tower for take off. We did so and were soon ready for take off. I called the tower and told them that I was ready for take off. The tower responded that I was clear for take off and to hurry up, because another airplane was going to land soon. Yikes... I got on the runway gave full power and off we went.

I was very pleased with the performance of the 172SP. I am used to 172s being a little bit under powered. The typical power plant in the older 172s is 145 horse Continental engine, and those 35 extra ponies in the Lycoming engine really help out. Really help out. I was at 55 knots for my rotation speed (bring the nose off of the runway) before I knew it and the airplane leapt in to the air carrying myself at 190lbs with clothing, and my 220+lb instructor. It was fun. I had not expected the 172 to be so peppy so I was very very pleased.

The basics of the glass panel took some getting used to, but I immediately liked them better than the steam gauges. For one, the Vertical Airspeed Indicator (how fast are you ascending or descending) was a number next to the Altimeter read out. Very very nice, and very handy. Your eyes don't need to move as much to find the number, it is just right there. The airspeed ribbon was meh, as was the Horizontal Situation Indicator, the replacement for the gyroscopic heading indicator. I say meh, because they look and operate basically the same as their steam counterparts, except the HSI does give you an exact heading as a number not just an indicator line like the heading indicator did. The HSI also incorporates your navigation instruments, the VOR or GPS with the common floating middle arrow.
However what was really awesome was the new Slip Skid Indicator. Before you had a gyroscopic instrument called the Turn Indicator. This had a little airplane in the middle with a blob of oil floating in some sort of solution underneath it.

Turn Coordinator

The idea was to watch this bubble and put more rudder control in as that bubble moved from the center. If your ball was centered, you are "on the ball" with a properly coordinated turn (no idea if this is where the saying originated...). That ball was kind of difficult to see if you had it centered, so most companies started to put lines in the middle to make sure you knew where the center was. Basically, the thing looked like a level used in wood working. The Slip Skid Indicator in the new glass panel was a line underneath the roll pointer. If you got your roll pointer and your slip skid indicator to look like an arrow you were golden. Very easy to see, very easy to use. I liked it very much.

The final new cool thing, I didn't mess with the Multi Functional Display (MFD), was the huge artificial horizon in the Attitude Indicator. It is very easy to see if you are nose down, or one wing is dipped or anything having to do with Attitude. The old school Attitude Indicators were kind of tough to read, because they were small. In the PFD it is huge and easy to read.

The Primary flight display

Using my new tools I was able to execute my turns easily and keep them right at the degree of bank that the instructor wanted... What I did not do well was to keep the airplane from skidding. I wasn't strong enough with the rudder. Something I will have to work with in the future.

The immediate draw backs to all of this information was that I found that I had to force myself to look out the windscreen to check for traffic. The displays have SO MUCH information that you are always looking at them rather than looking out the window. Big problem, but with all things practice practice practice.

We went through the normal procedures, lots of turns, stalls and other maneuvers that you only do during a flight review. We didn't do any "unusual attitude" stuff, that kind of upset me, because I look forward to that. It is when the instructor tells you to close your eyes, then he does something funky with the airplane and tells you, "recover." You open your eyes for a quick "Holly Shit" moment, then correct the airplane as best you can. It is a lot of fun.
This instructor's view of the biannual review was to go over the basics, and make sure you can do them well.
What he did do that was fun was to fly me out west of Wiley Post, then simulate an engine out. This is standard procedure for the review, but he had a slight twist... He simulated an engine out with Sundance Airfield just off of the RIGHT side. Why is this important? Two reasons, first you can actually simulate an engine out landing and actually land. Normally when we simulate an engine out you kind of run through the motions, find a field to "land" in, and you get power back about 500 feet before you touch down. No big deal. But with the airport right there, you get to practice the engine out from start to finish, all the way to the ground really neat!
Having the airport on the right side tells the instructor if the student is looking everywhere for a good place to land. Typically the student will find a place to land off of the left side of the airplane. That is the point of view he is most familiar with. So, if the student picks a field instead of a perfectly good concrete runway, there is a problem with the student's decision making.

In this case today, I found the airport right away and was able to do my engine out landing. Lots of fun, I have never dead sticked a landing, so it was a new and interesting experience. I didn't use flaps, because I didn't need them. I needed all of my altitude and space to keep my speed up above the stall speed to make the runway and land. Challenging and fun.

View Larger Map
Sundance Airpark

After that, we did some more turns, worked on some full power stalls, and headed back to the barn. I called the tower and was told to follow a local highway until an airplane ahead of us landed. Once the airplane had landed we were cleared to land, but, just like when I took off the first time, an airplane was given clearance for take off as we were coming in on final.
I made a good landing, and was able to exit the runway on the proper taxi way. A quick call to ground control and we were back at the FBO.

All in all a good flight. The instructor endorsed my log book for my biannual review, but did not endorse my rental check out form. I agreed with his assessment that I needed more work with the G1000 and the radios in the controlled area. I am more than willing to come back and do another hour or two of instruction. For nothing else than I need the practice. It has been a while, and I have yet to really tackle the biggest problem here in Oklahoma... The wind.
For now, I am current and back in the cockpit. In a few weeks, I will crawl back in and finish off my instruction. I can't wait!

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